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POLITICS Doing the Texas Two-Step

In Washington, Martin Frost dances to the left, while back home in the district he waltzes to the right. In 1996 the music may stop.
By Rich Lowry |

IN THE PACKET OF MATERIAL THE DEMOcratic Congressional Campaign Committee provides for reporters-outlining the historical precedents for the Democrats to bounce back from their crushing defeat in 1994 and detailing the successes of early Democratic fund raising-there is a factoid about the volatility of the congressional electoralmap: 41 Republicans and 44 Democrats won their seats last year by less than 55 percent, the generally acknowledged tine for dividing “safe ” seats from those up for grabs.

As DCCC chairman, it’s Martin Frost’s job in 1996 to help Democratic candidates take as many of those up-for-grab seats as possible. Trouble is, Chairman Frost’s own Texas seat falls into the vulnerable category.

In the coming battle for control of the House, 24th District congressman Martin Frost is at the epicenter: He’s charged with conjuring the Democratic comeback; he’s a white Southern Democrat at a time when the GOP wants to drive that particular political species into extinction; he’s a former House power broker trying to survive in the diminished circumstances of his party’s new minority status. At every turn, Frost’s fate is harnessed to that of the Democrats generally. Call him Mr. Bellwether. If Frost succeeds-at his DCCC job, at winning reelection-House Democrats may be back. If he doesn’t, 1996 may be as pleasant for Democrats as 1994- which is to say, not very.

Sitting in an office with bare walls and little furniture besides his desk and a few chairs, Frost, 53, looks like he just moved in-or is just about to move out, He occasionally stands to turn the rumbling air conditioner behind him on or off on this muggy day. His wiry hair is swept in a long wave over the top of his head in the typical Washington receding hairline style. The glasses he wears, the frames big and boxy, could be a holdover from his first days in Congress in the late 1970s, Glamour isn’t a Frost strong suit. He’s the school principal, the man who gets by not with charm or wit, but the more mundane virtues of reliability and persistence. “You don’t go through life turning down opportunities just because they might be tough,” he says of his current stint in the hot seat. “If you have the opportunity to do something important, you take it.”

Frost, the son of a Fort Worth aerospace engineer, ran an unsuccessful primary campaign in 1974 against conservative Democrat Dale Milford at the tender age of 32. Frost had studied journalism at the University of Missouri before moving to Washington,D.C. to work as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and then attend Georgetown law school. He returned to Texas in 1970 for brief stints as a legal reporter for television station KERA and as a practicing lawyer-determined to make it back to Washington. His chance came in 1978 when Milford suffered a massive heart attack that kept him from his congressional business and from the primary campaign trail. Frost handily won the primary-then tantamount to election-and in 1979 took his seat in Congress. Those were the days before “Washington insider” became an insult, when political climbers didn’t need to be so coy about their ambitions. Frost’s campaign literature at the time featured a picture of him chumming it up with then-House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Fort Worth. “Martin is no stranger to Washington,” proclaimed a brochure promising that Frost’s connections to Wright and other Texas Democratic Congressmen would make him “an effective voice in a Democratic Congress in 1979.” True to his word, Frost became only the second freshman Democratic congressman in the20th century to win a spot on the prized House Rules Committee, thanks to Wright’s patronage.

No one who lives more than five miles outside the Beltway is likely to have ever heard of the Rules Committee, but for about two decades, from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s, it was arguably the most important committee in Congress, setting the parameters for debate on bills on the House floor by determining which amendments would be permitted and which wouldn’t, a discretionary power that Democrats came to exploit eagerly. “By controlling the rules you can keep your opponents from really having any chance of winning,” says Eric Felten, author of The Ruling Class. “And that’s what they did.” In 1977-78 only 15 percent of the rules issued by the committee restricted what amendments could be offered to a bill. By 1990 the figure had reached more than half. When Republicans used to talk about the “arrogance of Democratic power” in the House, the Rules Committee was what they were talking about.

And Frost was in the midst of it. Frost, says one observer, “really wanted to develop into a leading figure within his party in Congress in the tradition of Texas Democrats like Sam Rayburn and George Mahon.” The Rules Committee and a careful cultivation of the Democratic leadership were essential to his ambition. Frost sat at the feet of Wright. When the Speaker began to run into the ethical problems that would force him to resign in 1989, Frost dutifully came to his defense. Earlier, he had joined Wright in defeating bills that would have tightened lending and investment requirements for savings & loans, thereby inadvertently helping push the S&L industry over the edge. But Frost’s leadership aspirations sustained a brutal blow when, immediately after Wright’s resignation, he lost to California Democrat Vic Fazio in a race for Democratic Caucus vice chairman.

Frost still had his Rules scat and went about parlaying it into one of those perpetual money machines that gave Democrats such an electoral boost in the 1980s. The advent of business PACs in the 1970s was supposed to be a boon to Republicans. They’d be a vehicle to counteract the financial clout of big labor. But California Democrat and then-DCCC chairman Tony Coehlo (forced to resign under an ethical cloud shortly after Wright) divined that business PACs should be a Democratic ally, too-because, no matter what their philosophy. Democrats were the only ones in a position to do business any favors. Thanks to Coehlo, the Democrats won the battle for PAC money in the 1980s. Frost is, in a sense, his heir.

In the 1993-94 cycle, Frost raised $1.6 million total, $767,000 from the PACs. That war chest made it possible for him to outspend his opponent. Republican homebuilder Ed Harrison, by more than 2 to 1. “Well over 70 percent of the PAC money goes to incumbent lawmakers,” says Josh Goldstein of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. “That quite frankly does give the incumbents an advantage. But it’s only part of the story. Because when you look even further and look at the other interested money…what you start to see is they also are giving in a similar pattern to the PACs.” The center’s 11 -page list of PAC contributions for Frost-who had his ringer in ever)’ important legislative pot thanks to his Rules Committee seat-reads like a directory of powerful Washington interests; almost $60,000 from defense industries (the maximum $10,000 from Lockheed Corp., Textron Inc., and Vought Aircraft), $125,000 from financial-real estate interests, $41,000 from lawyers and lobbyists (including a $.5,000 kiss from the influential Association of Trial Lawyers of America). “I have never seen PACs as evil,” Frost says. “I have always supported the role of PACs in politics.”

Fund-raising is to holding elected office what lawn mowing is to owning a house- long, hard, deadening work. “Persistence,” is how Frost sums up the key to being a good fund-raiser. “Nothing makes up for hard work and persistence. ” As one GOP aide puts it less charitably, the necessary drudgery’ of fundraising “plays into two of his strengths-one is that he is hard working; the other is that he has no shame, that he is not embarrassed to ask for anything.” This doggedness characterizes almost everything Frost does, especially when it comes to his district. Frost supporter Ken Molberg, former Dallas County Democratic Chairman, says “They broke the mold when they made Martin. He is a nonstop worker-I don’t care what he’s involved in. He’s just that way.”

Martin Frost does what it takes. In the big picture, that means fighting for Texas pork as only Texas politicians-Republican or Democrat-can. (Former Minnesota Congressman and renowned deficit hawk Tim Penny characterizes the bipartisan ethic of the Texas delegation: “If it’s in Texas, you vote for it.”) Frost has been a fast friend of the V-22 Osprey heliplane, the B-2 bomber, and the now-defunct Superconducting Supercollider, all gold mines for Texas defense contractors and other business interests. “I don’t agree with the business community on everything,” Frost explains. “But I try to work with them and network with them on a number of issues very important to economic development.”

In the smaller picture, doing what it takes means taking care of the details-none of which is more important than district lines. In 1991 Frost allocated a staff person almost full-time to the Texas legislature to ensure his district was protected; as it turned out, it would have been difficult, given the conditions, to draw lines more favorable to Frost. Other details matter, too. His reputation for constituent service is stellar; his TV ads in 1992 (featuring a fireman’s wife explaining how Frost helped her get health benefits) had the ring of truth. He’s as dogged as Texas Sen, Phil Gramm about getting in front of the cameras and microphones at every opportunity. And he never neglects the perks of incumbency. The ostensible justification for taxpayer-funded franked mail is that it’s a constituent service, not a campaign tool. In 1992, after his district lines had shifted, Frost abandoned the fiction, sending franked mail to households not yet in his district.

All of this-the plum committee assignment, the PAC dollars, the hard work- masks the tension between the two Martin Frosts: Texas Democrat and Washington Democrat. At home, in an area becoming increasingly conservative and Republican, Frost has to talk moderate. But often in Washington, where a Democrat with ambitions has to bend to the winds of a left-leaning caucus, he has to walk liberal (where his inclinations are anyway),

“I’m somewhere in the middle nationally,” Frost says. “Always have been. “But the raw numbers of his voting record show that he pushes the envelope of his district to the left. Congressman Pete Geren, who represents the neighboring and in some ways similar 12th district in Fort Worth, has an American Conservative Union (ACU) rating of 67 per cent. The National Journal gave. him a 58 percent conservative rating on economic issues and 77 percent on social issues in 1994. Frost, in contrast, scores a 25 percent ACU rating, and 37 and 38 percent in the respective National Journal ratings.

But if he’s pushing the envelope. Frost is careful to stay within it. In 1992, he switched his vote to support the Balanced Budget Amendment. “He’s very pragmatic,” says long-time local Democratic activist Roy Orr. “He knows what he needs to do, what’s right, and what’s emotional to people. Like burning the flag.” Frost recently voted for the constitutional amendment to allow states to ban flag desecration. Frost himself explains his approach on gun control: “Guns is a very tough issue in Texas. It’s a balancing question. I voted against the assault weapons ban [last year] when it was up as a separate item. When it was put in the crime bill, I thought it was important to pass the crime bill, so I voted for the conference report that included that.” To critics, this amounts to a kind of cynical dance. One top GOP aide says he has more respect for outspoken House liberals David Bonior (Mich. ) and Barney Frank (Mass.)-at least they believe in something. “I can’t think of too many politicians that strike me as more mealy-mouthed [than Frost],” he says.

Will Frost, the ultimate survivor, pass his twin tests in 1996? As chairman of the DCCC, his working habits will serve him well. Washington speculation was that the DCCC was such an undesirable job that no one else wanted it. Democrats are probably lucky they had Frost. -He’s concentrating on raising money and recruiting candidates and has intensified the DCCC’s communications effort. The office faxes out regular press releases hitting Republicans for tough votes and has already run two TV ads showing freshman Republicans “morphing” into House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Upgrading the DCCC is hardly impossible; its Republican counterpart underwent an almost total overhaul in the run-up to 1994. “You learn from each other,” says Frost. “[But] the biggest thing is getting good candidates in the right races early and then helping them structure their campaigns.”

But Frost’s problems in his own district mean that the incumbent’s reelection bid becomes decidedly uphill. Or he may once again pull the rabbit out of the hat if redis-tricting hands him enough precincts of reliable black voters siphoned from Eddie Bernice Johnson’s black-must-win district. Either way though, Frost must face the fundamental fact that the climate has changed in Texas and throughout the South. It’s now a liability to be a Democrat (nearly 100 Democratic office-holders in the South have switched parties since 1992, according to the Republican National Committee). And across the nation it’s now a drawback to be a Beltway insider. Both these trends explain why Frost drew only 53 per cent against a little-known first-time candidate despite his huge money advantage. Perhaps Frost can continue to buck the odds. If not, this native Texan, who has in so many ways gone to Washington, may finally be coming home.

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